Preview: Central Coast Mariners v Guangzhou R&F

The Central Coast Mariners host Guangzhou R&F in an AFC Champions League playoff tonight with a berth in the 2015 group stage on the line.

OPINION: The inside word on the Mariners’ ACL opponent

The Gosford club will look to continue their record of surprising Asia’s big boys when they host a Chinese powerhouse in this crucial clash.

The Mariners have punched above their weight in this competition in recent seasons, including a run to the quarter-finals in 2013, when they lost 5-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Guangzhou Evergrande.

Now it’s the turn of another Chinese Super League outfit from the same city to act as the obstacle to Phil Moss and his team, who have only five survivors from the matchday squad that lost 3-0 in the second leg against Evergrande two years ago.

Only Zach Anderson, Josh Rose, John Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery, who all started that game, and Nick Fitzgerald, introduced off the bench, remain at the club.

Graham Arnold, still in charge at that point, left to join Vegalta Sendai later that year and is now in charge at Sydney FC.

This will be the second ACL campaign with Moss in the hot seat, as the Mariners go in search of another berth in the group stage.

They acquitted themselves well last season despite losing Arnold and a large chunk of their 2012-13 A-League title-winning squad before the continental competition got underway.

Under Moss, Central Coast notched victories over Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Beijing Guoan but ended up bottom of Group F, three points behind the Japanese side and five back from first-placed FC Seoul.

They go into this game on the back of an underwhelming performance in a 2-0 A-League defeat to Brisbane Roar on Friday night.

There have been further changes to the make-up of the Gosford outfit this term, with Mitch Duke the most recent departure to J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse.

In his absence, much of the goal-scoring burden with fall on Matt Simon, supported by Fitzgerald.

In Guangzhou R&F, they face a side that finished third in the CSL last term. Coached by Romanian Cosmin Contra, the ‘Blue Lions’ boast Chinese national team player Zhang Jinpeng, South Koreans Park Jong-Woo and Jang Hyun-Soo, Nigeria international Aaron Samuel and Spaniard Michel Herrero, a former Valencia player, among their ranks. Abderrazak Hamdallah, an 11-cap Morocco international, is a serious threat in attack.

Guangzhou R&F defeated Singapore’s Warriors 3-0 last week to reach this stage and warmed up for the ACL campaign with friendlies against Contra’s former club from his playing days Dinamo Bucuresti and Petrolul Ploiesti, the team he coached before taking over at Getafe.

Despite the start of their domestic season being some weeks away and playing away from home, the Chinese visitors will be favourites for this one-off clash.